Another summer, another spate of communities ravaged by fast-spreading wildfires.
While there are the obvious commonalities between the wildfires that have made national headlines over the past couple summers — apocalypse-level destruction, heart-wrenching displacement, the unflagging heroism of first responders — and past blazes, it’s hard not to notice an increasingly common trend. The impacted communities are no longer exclusively far-flung mountain towns and woodsy vacation outposts but densely populated urban areas across California: Santa Rosa, Ventura and, earlier this summer, Redding, a city of over 90,000 residents located in the northern end of the Sacramento Valley that’s now grappling with the aftermath of the Carr Fire, the seventh-largest wildfire in California history. (At the time of this writing, the fire, which has been raging for over a month, is 93 percent contained.)
So what’s happening?
Are wildfires, spurred by record-breaking heat waves and other natural phenomenon attributed to a changing climate, just that much bigger and difficult to contain?
Or are we infringing on wildfire-prone natural areas, pushing suburban sprawl to the point where raging summertime infernos are no longer limited to the sparsely populated backcountry?
Per scientists, climate change does indeed factor into the severity of wildfires wreaking havoc across the West. But unchecked sprawl also plays into the mix. It’s the main reason why, each summer, we are seeing so many more homes destroyed and so many lives turned upside down by wind-driven flames.
“There are just places where there should not be subdivisions,” Kurt Henke, a former fire chief in Sacramento who now consults for fire-fighting organizations, recently told the Associated Press. “We’re not talking about a single family who wants to build a house in the woods. I’m talking about subdivisions encroaching into the wild land urban interface that put them in the path of these destructive fires.”
According to the San Jose Mercury News, about one-third of Californians live in areas that qualify as the “wild land urban interfaces” — fire-prone fringes of major population centers that abut wilderness — mentioned by Henke.
In the case of the Carr Fire, the blaze started about 10 miles west of the city in a relatively rural area with a minimal number of homes at risk. But fueled by winds and unrelentingly hot conditions, the fire then jumped the Sacramento River and swept into Redding proper where it leveled many of the sprawling subdivisions found on the city’s western periphery. Over 1,000 homes — and a handful of lives, including three firefighters — have been lost.
It was a similar story last summer in both Ventura, just north of Los Angeles, and in Santa Rosa, the bustling North Bay burg that serves as the heart of California Wine Country. These fires, while initially limited to the far rural fringes of these cities, were swept into town by high winds and dry conditions, taking out densely populated neighborhoods in the process.
Jacque Chase, an urban planning expert at California State University, Chico, tells the Associated Press that government statistics show a spike in home building-activity in once-remote areas that serve as a buffer between urban development and untouched wilderness.
This sprawl, occurring not just in California but also across the country, not only puts more homes and lives at risk but also increases the likelihood of fires sparked by human activity. (Downed power lines, smoking and sparks from towed trailers are responsible for some of the most damaging recent California wildfires; lightning was a major culprit in the past.)
What’s more, sprawl also completely changes the way firefighters must respond to wildfires. While fire containment was once the top priority, firefighters increasingly “have to deal with actually saving lives and saving property,” Chase says.
California wildfires now a 'people problem'
Published in the journal Natural Hazards, an eye-opening new analysis from Villanova University geographer Stephen M. Strader illustrates how aggressively sprawl has encroached into what Lisa M. Krieger, a science writer for the Mercury News, calls “our flammable foothills and forests.”
Per Strader’s findings, over the past 50 years there has been a 1,000 percent increase in the number of homes in the western United States at direct risk of being impacted by wildfires. In 1940, the number of wildfire-vulnerable homes was roughly 607,000. In 2010, it was 6.7 million.
Strader explains to the Mercury News that data shows the “expanding bull’s eye effect” in action. “Cities are moving into regions where there were no people before. People and wildfires are coming together more often,” he says.
John Keeley, a fire scientist with the U.S. Geographical Survey’s Western Ecological Research Center, claims that the fires themselves are the same as they’ve ever been and that the reason they are more devastating is a “people problem.” In fact, according to his research, instances of California wildfires are not increasing. They’re just exponentially more destructive. (Nine of the 10 most expensive wildfires in California history have occurred in the past two decades per CalFire statistics.)
“What’s changing is not the fires themselves but the fact that we have more and more people at risk,” he tells the Mercury News. He notes that climate change does contribute to the increased severity of wildfires but that people are the No. 1 cause. “People have to be put somewhere, and we’ve put them in wildland areas.”
So where exactly are people more at risk than they were 10, 15, 25 years ago?
According to Strader’s analysis, a flurry of new home construction in once-rural swaths of Northern California — Santa Clara, Alameda and Contra Costa counties as well as the counties that comprise the North Bay region including Sonoma, Marin, Napa and Solano — are most susceptible. However, the real danger lies further north in the northern Sacramento Valley (home to Redding) and in Mendocino, Lake and Colusa counties where two separate fires, the Ranch Fire and the River Fire, are burning together to form the largest single wildfire in California history at more than 400,000 acres — that’s about half the size of Rhode Island.
Building homes further out brings wildfires closer in
As the Mercury News' Krieger explains, controlled or prescribed burning, a technique used to prevent wildfires from spreading from forests into developed areas, has fallen to the wayside in California in recent years. This is partly because those buying fancy new homes in close-to-nature subdivisions don’t want to be exposed to occasional plumes of thick smoke. It's those plumes of smoke that ultimately minimize the real deal.
But there's a bigger issue at hand. Max Moritz, a wildfire specialist with the University of California’s Division of Agriculture & Natural Resources, relays to Martin Kuz of the Christian Science Monitor that inaction from state lawmakers who are reluctant to lead the charge in restricting development in vulnerable areas is only worsening the situation. Presently, local officials, developers and homeowners face few limitations when building in fire-prone wild land urban interfaces. Moritz refers to this as a “political will problem.”
“If you want to keep communities safe, then you have to think about living differently, about where and how we build our communities,” he says. “But there's no bill in the legislature about that.”
Sadly, Moritz’s wishes for smarter, more restrictive land use planning likely won’t be embraced by California homeowners who are dead-set on moving further and further out and, which, in effect, draws high-risk areas in.
People (understandably) want to live in close proximity to nature. Thanks to improved roads, cheap land and a transition away from traditional 9-to-5 work schedules, this is now more possible to do on a full-time basis than it was in the past.
High housing costs are also pushing potential homeowners out of urban cores and into city-ringing subdivisions located in once-rural areas. And for the most part, these homeowners don’t mind. They have the best of both worlds: proximity to a city and nature. And that, after all, has always really been the biggest appeal of living in the 'burbs: the parks are bigger, the birds chirp louder, the skies are more wide open and, best of all, the commute won't kill you. There's privacy. Heck, you may even see deer running amok. But never before have the suburbs and the wild mingled so closely, especially in housing-hungry California.
“There’s a preference to living next to open space. And maybe it’s how people who want nicely-built big new homes can afford them,” Chase of CSU-Chico tells the Mercury News. “Historically, you’ve always had people who want to live outside the city, although you didn’t necessarily see a lot of subdivisions, where housing is sold en masse. People think, ‘I am in suburbia, and my house won’t burn.’ ”
More and more, it's apparent that these people were wrong.
This doesn't have to be 'the new normal'
Despite resistance from homeowners and developers, Moritz and others believe that state lawmakers need to enact change by persuading local governments to rethink their approach to land use planning. After all, it’s often the state that ends up footing the bill once disaster strikes.
“Saying that all building code and building permit decisions are local — that’s a little bit of a cop-out because we all end up paying for the destruction,” Moritz tells the Monitor. “We also publicly fund all the fire suppression, the fire agencies, the disaster support systems. So there’s a place for saying that we need a more science-based approach to land management that could reduce the amount of damage.”
Dick Cameron, head of the land sciences program with the California chapter of the Nature Conservancy, relays to the Mercury News that promoting high-density construction in cities and established neighborhoods is a no-brainer. He also suggests building aesthetically pleasing buffers such as irrigated agricultural landscapes around at-risk developments.
And like with many homeowners in flood-stricken areas who are insistent on rebuilding in those very same flood zones after their previous homes are destroyed, experts suggest that rebuilding in wildfire-devastated areas needs to be discouraged, if not outright halted.
“We need to change our thinking about building and what we assume is normal, which is building houses anywhere and everywhere,” Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College, tells the Monitor. “We need to accept the reality we’re living in.”
As for California Governor Jerry Brown’s recent declaration that catastrophic wildfires are “the new normal" for the state, Miller begs to differ.
“This isn’t the new normal,” he argues. “It’s become normal, and there needs to be recognition and acceptance on the part of politicians at every level and citizens that this has been going on for several years.”